Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, February 2000)

Ida Bagus Ketut, in front of his father's funeral pyre


Watching Indonesian television with my old Balinese chum Grandpa Suarsa a bloody segment on the lamentable violence in Ambon is screened. Amidst the mayhem, nay, right on the front line of machete-wielding a pair of pretty dancers in colourful local costumes perform the Spice Island Polka. "Gays" says Grandpa Suarsa. "Well, there’s a role for everyone in Indonesian society’ I comment, recalling the events of the past few weeks:

January 1, 2000: My liege lord, Ida Bagus Anom, finally succumbs to nicotine-poisoning—my adopted home prepares for its third major cremation in a year
Old school chum Richard Cobden Ll.B., president emeritus of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, is here, staying at my Sanur home, the Villa Bebek, with a pair of lithesome consorts. I invite them all to the cremation of the man who taught me how to wear a white turban 27 years ago.
Over the cremation week, in between my ceremonial duties (body washings, astral-body fashionings) at my adopted home, the young Sydney trio regale me with horror stories of their experiences in ‘tourist Bali.’ It is comforting to have them here but I am disturbed by the stories they bring back from their sorties out. It seems that out there, beyond the lurex curtain, almost every money changer has become horribly corrupt and taxi drivers dangerously over-sexed. A Legian masseur even commented on the hirsuteness of my house guests nether- regions before going down for the count!
Anyway, as I was saying, the Brahmans of Kepaon village, who sheltered this columnist during the years 1974 – 1980, who taught me to be a New-Balinese and who, collectively, provided the cast for my "The Complete Stranger in Paradise 1979-1980" now available at a bookstore near you , are gathered again for the final rite de passage of their patriarch.
Back for the first time in 25 years is the golden boy, Gus Rai, with his four children, all raised outside Bali. The youngsters are overcome by the show of intense filial piety. Back also is the deceased’s second wife with whom I spent many agreeable weeks in the Balinese quarter of the police barracks in North Jakarta in 1983 (hiding out from the redhead bigots at Denpasar immigration).
The feuding factions of the family, now divided by a river and a Berlin wall, fuse for the festivities. The deceased’s widow, Biang Ayu, however, is visibly distraught: She left the family of one of Denpasar’s richest men 40 years ago to marry the man she loved. The step-children she raised and the husband she loved have been unable, or unwilling, to provide for her, and her presence in the courtyard, central and despairing, strikes a sad note amongst the reunion atmosphere. There are many joyous chords however: the head of the Puri Ukir Palace in Denpasar has arrived for the body-washing. 200 years ago his family gave a poor brahman (a refugee from Bajing village in East Bali) a piece of land that it is now the 60-strong Geria (Brahman house) of Kepaon.

The body-washing, held in the afternoon of January 9, was well attended, and the pinning of the astral body ‘tapestry’ which followed a star-studded affair—the life guard from the Bali Oberoi and the high priest from Bajing were present. Over 100 members of various extended families took part in the ceremonies.
Back in Sanur later that night, however, I find my tourist house guests quivering—they are sunburnt, and their modesty has been outraged once again. During a taxi-ride from Sanur to Kuta the driver had spent the entire trip explaining his ‘regular’ back-seat dalliances with an Australian national (female). My friends were then offered more bold massages and mind-expanding substances, in the taxi! What is happening to the island of the gods? It’s as if there are parallel universes: one for the ceremony-loving Balinese and one for the hedonistic tourist lambs to the slaughter.

11 January 2000—A glittering cremation saved by a swashbuckling stranger
The morning started in one of the narrow lanes that lead to my adopted home. I stopped to teach my brace of strays (straight-acting gays) how to ‘stride’ in their Balinese dress, and not mince like geishas (see photos bottom left and right).
An angklung orchestra greeted us at the house gate. Inside, the courtyard home was a sea of men in black and women bearing trays of coffee and sweet- meats. A bleganjur marching band was warming up on an eastern verandah as dignitaries from other noble houses read aloud from holy scriptures.
At 11.45 a.m. the coffin shot out of the house gate on the shoulders of the village honour guardin Bali the village not the family cremate or bury the deadweaving its way to the gold and white badé tower parked in the village square.
At exactly noon, with the coffin now firmly tied in position atop the bade tower and with two of the deceased’s grandchildren astride the cloth-covered box, the procession sped off, pell mell, towards the graveyard. My house guests squealed and, I fancy, secreted an enzyme or two as 50 burly Balinese in tank-tops hoisted the funeral float aloft. "Dead Kennedystoo drunk to f—k," read the lead bearers T-shirt. Richard Cobden was particularly impressed by the vibrancy of the processional music: "Turn, turn, kick, turn…….now sausage, chin up" he was overheard muttering to his support group.
My adopted family were pleased that I had imported some well-dressed tourists for the occasion as only three Austrians in spandex shorts had braved the inclement weather to witness the great spectacle.
More and more, less and less tourists are interested in tracking down the real Bali.
Half way along the processional route I climbed a kulkul tower to get a better angle. As the family passed below they shouted at me to release the "Anti Narcotics" banner that was still tied, too low, across the processional way. I had seconds to act: the tower was bearing down on me as my fingers grappled with the nylon rope’s knots. Suddenly a passing marine hurled a gleaming dagger at my rooftop eyrie and I slashed through the offending ropes with split seconds to spare: a little Ozzie battler in ethnic costume had saved the dayI felt like a digger at a Kylie Minogue concert!
Later that day, after the house guests had been sent home, goggle-eyed by the beauty and the ceremonial fervour, and after the ashes of Ida Bagus Anom had been gathered and blessed, the entire village travelled, in convoy, to the causeway that leads to Benoa harbour. There, the mortal remains were consigned to the sea. As the convoy left to return home I snuck down to the water’s edge with my real Dad’s ashes (R.I.P. November 1996) and sprinkled them gently in my adopted Dad’s ‘wake’I had waited for four years to surreptitiously perform this unofficial "ngiring Ratu" ("follow the liege Lord") ritual as I didn’t want to burden my Balinese family with unorthodoxy in these militant Hindu times.
My loyal driver of 18 years witnessed and recorded the ‘scattering’ as the crippled son of the late Ida Bagus Anom sat quietly, and unknowingly, in the back of my vintage Holden, playing with the beads on the seat covers.
May they both be received at God’s side.

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